“Science without conscience is the death of the soul.”
—Peter Abelard (1079-1144)
Men and women of good will talk of a common humanity, a common empathy with people everywhere who have hopes and sorrows similar to their own. Ken Alibek’s book is about a common inhumanity, a gigantic effort that employed tens of thousands of people to find ways of inflicting the most excruciatingly painful diseases and deaths on millions of men, women, and children in the hated capitalist world on the pretense or in the belief that they threatened the beloved motherland, the Soviet Union.
Biohazard is a candid autobiography of an ambitious Kazakh physician who helped to create and direct the largest and most advanced biological warfare program in the world. In the “Oath of a Soviet Physician” he had sworn “to do no harm.” He knew, he writes, “that the results of my studies could be used to kill people, but I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile this knowledge with the pleasure I derived from research.”
The prologue sets the scene:
On a bleak island in the Aral Sea, one hundred monkeys are tethered to posts set in parallel rows stretching out toward the horizon. A muffled thud breaks the stillness. Far in the distance, a small metal sphere lifts into the sky then hurtles downward, rotating, until it shatters in a second explosion.
Some seventy-five feet above the ground, a cloud the color of dark mustard begins to unfurl, gently dissolving as it glides down toward the monkeys. They pull at their chains and begin to cry. Some bury their heads between their legs. A few cover their mouths or noses, but it is too late: they have already begun to die.
At the other end of the island, a handful of men in biological protective suits observe the scene through binoculars, taking notes. In a few hours, they will retrieve the still-breathing monkeys and return them to cages where the animals will be under continuous examination for the next several days until, one by one, they die of anthrax or tularemia, Q fever, brucellosis, glanders, or plague.
These are the tests I supervised throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. They formed the foundation of the Soviet Union’s spectacular breakthroughs in biological warfare.
During World War II and the early stages of the cold war that followed, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union developed and field-tested biological weapons; but the United Kingdom gave them up in 1950 and in November 1969 President Nixon unilaterally renounced them, and in February 1970 he also renounced the development of toxins for military purposes. The United States stated that it had destroyed its stockpiles, converted the biological weapons laboratories to purely defensive purposes, and converted the factories providing the weapons to peaceful uses. There is no evidence that it did not. Harold Wilson’s British Labour government had by then proposed an international treaty banning the development, production, and possession of biological weapons. In 1972 this proposal led to the Biological Weapons Convention, which was signed and ratified by the United States and the Soviet Union. The convention entered into force in 1975, remains in force, and now has 143 “State Parties” adhering to it, including the United States, the Russian Federation, and Iraq. Unfortunately it has no efficient mechanism for verifying compliance.
The President’s bold initiative had been stimulated in part by a forceful memorandum which the Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson sent to his friend and former colleague Henry Kissinger in September 1969. This contained cogent arguments that the security of the United States would be enhanced by a policy of renunciation; an American biological weapons program would pioneer a technology that would leak out, so that other states could duplicate it for sinister purposes of their own.
The Soviet authorities seized upon the Convention as an excellent opportunity to acquire a monopoly on biological weapons that could be added to the Soviet Union’s already extensive stocks of conventional and nuclear weapons. They told their scientists that the Convention was no more than a screen behind which the United States would continue to develop its own biological weapons. Alibek writes:
We were the victims of our own gullibility. I have come to believe that the most senior Soviet officials must have known all along that the Americans had no serious biological warfare program after 1969—after all, our intelligence agencies were among the best at their craft, and they had not come up with any real evidence. But the fiction had been necessary to instill in us a sense of urgency. The Soviet biological warfare program, born initially out of fear and insecurity, had long since become a hostage to Kremlin politics. This would explain why KGB Chairman Kryuchkov had been so willing to trade it away in 1990 and why bureaucrats like Kalinin and Bykov refused to give it up.
In December 1991, Alibek was a member of a Russian delegation sent to inspect suspected US biological warfare installations. Before he left Russia, his superior, Major General Kalinin, told him: “Whatever you see there, come back with evidence that the Americans are making [biological] weapons.” He found none.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the number of people employed there on research, development, and manufacture of biological weapons had grown to 60,000. Gorbachev’s five-year plan, issued in 1985, included a $400 million virus production plant in Mordovia that contained a 170-gallon reactor for smallpox virus. In 1990 Soviet expenditure on biological weapons was close to $1 billion. At the same time, the Soviet authorities were unable to control their country’s rapidly deteriorating economy. They were rescued from bankruptcy by foreign loans that raised external debt from $43 billion at the end of 1988 to $67 billion at the end of 1991.1 Still, biological weapons spending continued.
The worldwide eradication of smallpox ranks as the greatest achievement of the World Health Organization, a heartening example of international cooperation to rid mankind of a terrible scourge. After this success, vaccination of babies against smallpox was discontinued throughout the world. The Soviets recognized that this made the new generation susceptible to smallpox and initiated a program for the manufacture of the virus. A Soviet medical team sent to India to help eradicate the virus was accompanied by a KGB man who returned home with a highly virulent and stable strain of it. Alibek writes that by adapting methods for growing human or animal cells in cultures on a large scale that had been developed in the West, a new production line perfected by 1990 was capable of manufacturing eighty to one hundred tons of virus per year in a vast atomic bomb-proof underground factory.
Some experts I have consulted regard that figure as improbably high because smaller amounts of virus would have been sufficient. An aerosol droplet containing as few as five smallpox virus particles suffices to infect a monkey; if this applied also to humans, then even one ton, if dispersed around the world, would be more than enough to kill every nonvaccinated man, woman, and child on earth. Alibek points out that the 12 million doses of smallpox vaccine now stored in the US would not stop an epidemic. He and his colleagues must have been aware that most adults in the West had been vaccinated so that their new weapon was aimed mainly at children.
In 1967 an animal keeper at the Behring pharmaceutical works in Marburg, Germany, contracted a virus from green monkeys sent there from Africa. It was named Marburg virus and is one of the most dangerous viruses known. The Ebola virus, described by Richard Preston in his best-selling book The Hot Zone, is closely related to it. In April 1988 Nikolai Ustinov, a scientist in the Vector Institute in the small Siberian town of Koltsovo, accidentally injected some Marburg virus into his thumb. Antiserum sent from Moscow proved useless. Alibek describes in heartrending detail Ustinov’s terrible suffering during the two weeks before he died. Since normal burial of his body was too risky, it was covered with disinfectant, wrapped in plastic sheets, and placed in a sealed metal container, which was then fitted into a wooden coffin.
Alibek blames Ustinov’s accident on long hours of work and enormous pressure to achieve quick results. What for? Alibek does not tell us. Before the burial, samples of the virus taken from Ustinov’s organs were found to be more virulent and stable than those taken from the fermentors, and orders went out to replace that strain with Ustinov’s. When bomblets filled with the virus were exploded over monkeys every one of them was dead three weeks later. By early 1990 the virus and the related Ebola virus were ready for approval by the Ministry of Defense.
On January 10 of this year Judith Miller reported in The New York Times that American subsidies had helped to convert the Koltsovo laboratories to peaceful purposes. They are now manufacturing diagnostic kits, enriched milk for children, interferon (used for treating certain leukemias and lymphomas), antibodies, and cosmetics, and they are also trying to develop a drug against the Marburg and Ebola viruses. A photograph in The New York Times shows Ustinov’s widow sadly leaning over a gravestone that bears his photograph at a ceremony marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the laboratory’s founding. She must wish the change of policy had come sooner.
Excessive prescription of antibiotics by doctors and their use by animal breeders has spread resistance to them among many disease-producing bacteria. Some bacteria have developed resistance against all major antibiotics. The genes responsible for the resistance are concentrated in circular strands of DNA called plasmids which are separate from the main bacterial chromosome and relatively easy to isolate. Alibek’s colleagues managed to introduce such plasmids into Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague; these could be suspended in aerosols and released over cities, and would resist all known forms of treatment. Alibek notes that death from plague is invariably painful. Another triumph of his organization was the creation of a strain of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, a relative of the plague bacterium, into which they introduced the gene for a paralyzing toxin, so that infection would cause both fever and paralysis.
Valery Butuzov, a pharmacologist who became Alibek’s close friend, specialized in developing toxins for assassinating individuals rather than for mass murder. One day in 1990 he came to ask Alibek’s advice about a brilliant new invention, an ingeniously designed pocket assassinator. It consisted of a miniature battery, an amplifier, and a vibrating membrane, all in a box the size of a packet of cigarettes. A speck of dried powder on the membrane would form an aerosol when the device was activated. Butuzov told Alibek that he was thinking of something like Ebola virus. Alibek objected that this would also kill everyone around the chosen victim, but Butuzov thought that this wouldn’t matter. One possible victim was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the newly elected president of Georgia, who was seen as hostile to Russia.
Another of Alibek’s colleagues, called Markin, served in the KGB “Division for Special Countermeasures Against Foreign Engineering Intelligence Services.” He was a civilian engineer who was expert in disguising the voluminous flow of waste from the fermentation plants used for the production of bacteria and viruses. An unhappy marriage depressed him and made him ask for a leave of absence on the pretense that he needed to take care of his sick mother. A few weeks later he applied to retire to the collective farm near Gorky where his mother lived; he said that he was not a traitor, but wanted to live peacefully in a natural setting. But Markin knew too much. The local commander of the KGB complained that this had given him two headaches instead of one, because he had already had to keep watch on Andrei Sakharov, who had been banished to Gorky. After some time passed, Alibek’s superior told him with glee that he now had only one headache: Markin had been drinking too much, went out for a swim, and never returned. The commander brushed off Alibek’s question whether Markin had been murdered by saying that all that mattered was that he didn’t have to worry about Markin anymore.
Tularemia is a bacterial disease transmitted by ticks or mosquitoes; if inhaled, it causes weeks of chills, nausea, headaches, and fever. The authoritative book Health Aspects of Chemical and Biological Weapons, published by the World Health Organization, states that
A case fatality rate of approximately 25 percent could be expected if a virulent strain were used. If an antibiotic-sensitive strain of relatively low virulence were used, with the aim of incapacitating, as opposed to killing, deaths would be considerably reduced but still be appreciable in number.2
Alibek writes that after World War II the United States and Canada developed tularemia for use on the battlefield, realizing that it could immobilize an entire division if the soldiers had not been vaccinated. In 1942 Soviet troops apparently sprayed tularemia successfully among the German troops who were attacking Stalingrad. From an unspecified “leading international research institute in Europe,” Alibek obtained a tularemia strain capable of overcoming immunity in vaccinated monkeys, and after several months’ effort turned it into a weapon. Five hundred monkeys were brought from Africa and immunized before being tested on that island in the Aral Sea. Two generals took charge of the test team. Back in his laboratory, Alibek waited for the outcome, too excited to concentrate on his research. When the coded test results came back, they were better than expected. Alibek was thrilled that nearly all the immunized monkeys had died. He was showered with congratulations and decorated by his commanding officer, Major General Y.T. Kalinin, who was also deputy minister in the Ministry of Medical and Microbiological Industry. Alibek has no word of sympathy for the intelligent monkeys tortured to death for the sake of his advancement and the aggrandizement of his bosses.
In 1987 Alibek was promoted to the rank of colonel and deputy chief of the Biosafety Directorate for developing the large-scale production of a very virulent strain of the anthrax bacillus in a factory that could produce two tons a day. The process used, he writes, was as “reliable and efficient as producing tanks, trucks, cars or Coca-Cola.” (A British weapons inspector who saw the plant told me that it could not have produced two tons of dried anthrax spheres a day, but only two tons of a suspension of spores in water.3 ) Alibek claims that this transformed the Soviet Union into the world’s first and only biological superpower. By 1986, over nine hundred people worked at that plant, and more were added every month. The extreme pressure under which they were forced to work led to one or two accidents every week, but that was considered a small price to pay for their productivity.
In November 1979, a Russian magazine in West Germany reported that in April of that year an explosion in an army factory near Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains had released a cloud of anthrax bacteria that killed about a thousand people. The Soviet news agency TASS denied this violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and attributed the incident to an outbreak of anthrax among domestic animals in the Sverdlovsk region. In her excellent recently published book Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak,4 the American sociologist Jeanne Guillemin describes in fascinating detail her investigations in Sverdlovsk together with a team of scientists and doctors to discover the true cause of the outbreak. They succeeded in establishing that an explosion had taken place, but the details remained obscure.
Alibek’s book supplies them. In the anthrax drying plant at Compound 19 of the biological arms production facility, anthrax was manufactured around the clock. In order to dry the anthrax spores the fermenting liquid had to be evaporated. The spores were then ready to be ground into a fine powder for suspension in an aerosol. To prevent the escape of anthrax spores, the exhaust pipes of the evaporators were fitted with filters, which, after each shift, were shut down for maintenance.
One evening in 1979, the outgoing technician of the afternoon left a note for his supervisor: “Filter clogged so I’ve removed it. Replacement necessary”; but the supervisor failed to enter his message in the log book. The evaporators were switched on again for the night shift and a cloud of anthrax spores escaped which the wind blew over the town. Alibek writes:
No one wanted to set off a panic or to alert outsiders. Sverdlovsk residents were informed that the deaths were caused by a truckload of contaminated meat sold on the black market. Printed fliers advised people to stay away from “unofficial” food vendors. More than one hundred stray dogs were rounded up and killed, on the grounds that they represented a danger to public health after having been seen scavenging near markets where the meat was sold. Meanwhile, military sentries were posted in the immediate neighborhood of the plant to keep intruders away, and KGB officers pretending to be doctors visited the homes of victims’ families with falsified death certificates.
Reports about the number of deaths differ between 66 and 105, far fewer than the thousand reported earlier. Alibek calls Sverdlovsk as serious a disaster as the one at Chernobyl. In fact, the number of deaths is surprisingly small for an urban area containing about a quarter of a million people, possibly because inhaled anthrax spores are not very infectious to humans.
To remove production from population centers, Brezhnev then ordered the transfer of biological weapons manufacture to Stepnogorsk, a town isolated in the desert of Kazakhstan. Alibek applied for the directorship of the new plant and got it. He and his family now enjoyed the privileges reserved for the higher echelons of the Soviet army. He was well on the way to becoming a general when disaster struck. In October 1989, Vladimir Pasechnik, the head of the Leningrad Institute of Ultra-Pure Biopreparations where cruise missiles were filled with bacteria and viruses, defected to Britain. Shortly afterward the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire began to collapse.
Margaret Thatcher faced Gorbachev with Pasechnik’s evidence, but he denied it. Eventually agreement was reached on mutual inspection of Soviet and American biological weapons facilities, and the arrival of an inspection team was imminent. Alibek describes a meeting with Foreign Ministry officials who seemed to be unaware of the army’s activities, and he claims that even Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, a member of the Politburo, was ignorant of Gorbachev’s orders to step up the manufacture of biological weapons. Even before Pasechnik’s defection some of the biological weapons were being made in mobile plants that would escape detection by foreign inspectors.
A British-American inspection team finally arrived at Sverdlovsk on January 15, 1991. Alibek was ordered to act as their host. He and his colleagues and their accompanying KGB men played a cat-and-mouse game with the inspectors about the work in the facilities they visited. He spoke no English, but he enjoyed his first contacts with scientists “in the enemy camp.” Despite Alibek’s determined attempt to fool the inspectors, they obtained clear evidence for a biological weapons program and informed the Soviets of their findings. Alibek then seems to have realized that the game was up. He gradually resigned from his various offices and also from the Communist Party, and escaped with his family to the United States, where he claims to have disclosed to US authorities all the secrets of the Soviet Union’s biological warfare program.
In his introduction, Alibek writes that Russia’s stockpile of germs and viruses has now been destroyed and that offensive research is no longer conducted, but near the end of his book he cites evidence that some facilities in Russia are still being used. In a recent letter to me, Matthew Meselson reports that three of the former Soviet facilities remain closed to foreigners. It seems clear that Biopreparat, the organization to which Alibek belonged, was the civilian façade of the biological weapons program which has indeed been dismantled. But this was only one arm of the program; the other was run by the army, and there is no evidence that it has been discontinued. Discussions among the Americans, the Russians, and the British had led to agreement on a program of reciprocal visits to one another’s biological facilities; some visits took place but the agreement seems now to be in abeyance and the discussions have stopped.
Without such visits it is hard to evaluate the Russian program, but even if these visits were still taking place, experience in Iraq has shown that plants manufacturing biological weapons are very difficult to detect. Continuing suspicions, together with the deterioration of US-Russian relations, hamper joint efforts to avert a threat to both countries. On the other hand, the Republic of Kazakhstan, with American help and subsidies, has in fact dismantled the large biological warfare plant at Stepnogorsk.
Alibek tells us that the initiative for the Soviet program had come not from the government or from the army, but from a scientist, Yuri Ovchinnikov, a biochemist of international repute, vice president to the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and the only scientific member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. A wrestling champion and actor in his youth, he was strongly built, an outstandingly able scientist and manager, and a shrewd opportunist who exploited his connections in the army and the Party to gain strong support for his institute. He enjoyed his prominent position in the Soviet hierarchy. His chauffeur drove him in a large Zil limousine along the middle lanes reserved for Party bosses, and he was an admired leader of the mostly women scientists in his laboratory.
His research concentrated on naturally occurring peptides and toxins with obvious military applications, such as the toxin incorporated in Yersinia pseudotuberculosis. Before he died of leukemia at the age of fifty-three, Ovchinnikov had obtained the equivalent of about $100 million for building a gigantic new institute of bioorganic chemistry on the outskirts of Moscow. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Western literature on molecular genetics had made him aware of its possible military applications, and he persuaded the skeptical military leaders of its potential for creating deadly biological weapons; he found an ally in Leonid Brezhnev and persuaded him to use the international Biological Weapons Convention as a screen for turning the Soviet Union into a biological superpower. An Interagency Scientific and Technical Council was set up for coordinating the various organizations involved in this ambitious program.
What was the purpose of producing tons of deadly viruses and bacteria engineered to enhance still further the suffering and agonizing deaths they would cause? This was not just an enterprise designed to provide Soviet forces with additional weapons. It was a program pursued with the same feverish intensity as the construction of the first atomic bombs at Los Alamos in the 1940s. The physicists at Los Alamos, however, were driven by fear that the Germans under Hitler would make atomic bombs first. The Soviets ought to have known through their secret services that neither the United States nor Britain was making biological weapons. They were already equipped with thousands of nuclear missiles, enough to extinguish all life on earth, so why did they need biological weapons sufficient to kill all humans and higher animals on earth several times over as well?
Did the Politburo and the General Staff plan a preemptive strike against the West, even though nuclear retaliation would have made this suicidal? Was the program driven by paranoid fear that the USSR would be attacked? Or by mindless obsession with the accumulation of weapons? Or simply by members of an elite haunted by fear that power might slip from their hands? And what was in the minds of the scientists who provided them with the means to commit crimes against humanity?
One of the most disturbing features of Alibek’s book is his obliviousness to the potential consequences of his work. He is a technocrat pure and simple, concerned only with the solution of the problem in hand and with his own career and a mind shut to all else. He writes fondly of his family, but it never occurs to him that the weapons he manufactures would subject thousand of other families to appalling suffering and death. And what for? The question does not occur to him.
For many years, Andrei Sakharov did nothing but design bigger and better hydrogen bombs, but eventually he gave it up in favor of working for human rights and an end to the cold war. Alibek merely changed to the winning side, saying he now felt he had a mission to warn the United States about biological terrorism. Thanks to his pioneering work, he writes, it has become cheap and easy to make the biological weapons, and former colleagues of his have offered their expert services to Iraq, Iran, and other hostile regimes to equip their missiles with deadly pathogens, but he provides no evidence to support this statement. In the US, the fear that these weapons might be deployed has been used to justify an antimissile defense, but according to a recent article in Scientific American such defenses are easy to penetrate by cruise missiles, decoys, and other means.5 The authors of the article do not believe that the problems can be solved even by expenditure of many billions of dollars. Argument continues whether a limited missile defense is technically feasible or politically desirable. (It is also possible that enemies of the US could secretly assemble the components of nuclear and biological weapons within the US and take them to their targets in a truck, as did, for example, the suicide bombers who attacked US embassies in Kenya and Uganda.)
In an editorial last year in Science, the physicist Philip Abelson mentions a new instrument to protect against biological attacks. It is a miniature version of the mass spectrometer, a sophisticated, normally very large machine used to identify chemical compounds, which would identify the attacking organisms within minutes.6 In 1984 Kary Mullins invented another ingenious chemical procedure, the polymerase chain reaction, which makes it possible to identify single genes and amplify them many millionfold. These methods would give the medical services time to treat victims with the appropriate vaccines or antibiotics, always assuming that sufficient stores of vaccines against virtually all possible bacteria and viruses are kept in all major cities.
This approach would also cost billions of dollars and would require elaborate training of police, ambulance, and hospital personnel, but it is unlikely that more than a small fraction of the thousands of victims of such an attack could be saved. It may also prove difficult to keep thousands of people on the alert for years in order to deal with a danger which, one hopes, will never materialize. While preparing to spend billions of dollars on defense against biological weapons, the US government also opposes a protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention which would cost little and would give the convention added effectiveness by providing for routine inspections for biological weapons activities. These would be analogous to the inspections for chemical weapons activities that have been routinely practiced under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention; but the US admin-istration would prefer a protocol providing for inspections on challenge.
According to press reports, the opposition of the US government is a response to pressure by pharmaceutical firms which fear that inspections might reveal their commercial secrets to foreign competitors. It is also argued that the technologies for peaceful applications of biotechnology are the same as those for weapons and that inspections or surveillance will be unable to establish the intent of the producer. The distinguished biologist Joshua Lederberg has commented that there may be no technical solution to the problem of biological weapons, only an ethical solution, by which he apparently means that nations should join in accepting a moral obligation not to use them.
According to a recent analysis by Paul Schulte, the UN special commission charged with ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction found itself frustrated “not by sensationally detected cheating, but by endless, persistent, shameless—and boring—lies and obstruction. They got away with that, because they judged, and still judge that they could successfully defy a divided Security Council.” It appears, he writes, that
any determined state which is sufficiently rich and/or powerful to pose a serious proliferation threat can, in the long term, even after losing an aggressive war against a widely based UN sanctioned coalition, expect to escape the consequences of non-compliance (even if the disarmament requirement was a strict cease-fire condition) by exploiting its diplomatic and commercial leverage to divide the world community into dropping sanctions or other enforcement measures.7
All the same, Matthew Meselson, a biologist knowledgeable about the threat posed by chemical and biological weapons, believes that international criminal law offers a promising new means of preventing biological warfare and terrorism. He wrote:
Recently, interest has developed in the possibility of a convention to create international law that would hold individuals criminally responsible for acts that are prohibited to states by the biological and chemical weapons conventions. Such a convention, which would be patterned on existing conventions that criminalize aircraft hijacking, nuclear theft, and other crimes that pose a threat to all, would make it an offense for any person, regardless of official position, to order, direct or knowingly render substantial assistance to the development, production, acquisition, or use of biological or chemical weapons. A person who commits any of the prohibited acts anywhere would face the risk of prosecution or of extradition, should that person be found in a state that supports the proposed convention.
International law that would hold individuals criminally responsible would create a new dimension of constraint against biological and chemical weapons. Such individuals would be regarded as hostes humani generis—enemies of all humanity. The norm against chemical and biological weapons would be strengthened; deterrence of potential offenders, both official and unofficial, would be enhanced; and international cooperation in suppressing the prohibited activities would be facilitated.8
It has been argued that it may be unjust to brand all those involved in biological weapons programs as criminals, because totalitarian governments may have given them no choice, forcing them to work under threats to them and their families. Even so, Meselson’s proposal deserves to be explored.
Before 1969, both the United States and the Soviet Union had large biological weapons programs. But then, to his credit, President Nixon decided that “mankind already holds in his hands too many seeds of its own destruction” and abandoned it, while the Soviet Union continued it clandestinely and illegally even after acceding to the Biological Weapons Convention. Reading Alibek’s book, I wondered whether he tried to make his revelations more sensational by painting a grossly exaggerated picture of the Soviet biological weapons program. Colleagues who worked on the British-American team that inspected the Soviet facilities in 1991 have told me the book contains many inaccuracies but that Alibek has not exaggerated the scale of the Soviet effort. On the contrary, he had detailed knowledge of only part of it. Even if only a fraction of his allegations are correct, his book uncovers a moral abyss and a perversion of science that threatens to nullify medicine’s hard-won conquest of infectious disease.
How likely are biological attacks? An attack by a foreign power, say by Iraq or North Korea, would provoke retribution so destructive as to make it suicidal. While the British press thrives on scaring the public with the imagined threats posed by genetically manipulated foods, American publishers are now making much of the dangers of bioterrorism. Is the alarm justified?
Terrorists might grow bacteria and viruses in a plant that supposedly makes vaccines, but it would require large technical and scientific resources to turn them into effective weapons. Henry Sokolski, Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., has written a balanced assessment of the risks themselves and of their exaggerated perception that seems worth quoting at length. He writes:
Last year President Clinton announced the US would spend $10 billion on countering terrorism, including biological and chemical threats, for fiscal year 2000. Would there be better things to spend such large sums of money on? As for biological attacks worldwide, seventy have occurred in the last century causing nine deaths, but only eighteen of these seventy attacks were made by terrorists. There are risks not only in underestimating the chemical and biological domestic terrorist threat, but in overestimating it as well. These include:
å? Raising public consciousness about the possible threat in a manner that emboldens criminals and terrorists to attempt precisely what the government and public want to avoid.
å? Reassuring the public about the preparedness of government such that any government shortcoming is likely to be magnified to politically fatal levels.
å? Preemptively undermining U.S. civil liberties in the name of enhanced homeland defense….
å? Encouraging an “America first” siege mentality and a retreat from foreign commitments critical to our nation’s security.
The downside risks listed are at least as likely as the domestic biological and chemical terrorism threats that might generate them. The technical challenges of terrorists using traditional biological agents to produce massive fatalities are no less daunting. Biological agents are lethal only if inhaled, and particles larger than ten microns are likely to be blocked before they reach the lungs. On the other hand, agent particles approaching one micron are likely to be exhaled and so will not remain in the lungs.9 Operationally, particles sized between five and ten microns are optimal. Spreading biological agent in particles of that precise size, however, is difficult. The only organizations that have done so are states. Sunlight, moreover, kills or denatures most biological agents (making night-time dispersal imperative), and wind patterns and humidity can reduce the lethality of an anthrax attack 1,000-fold.
As for dealing with domestic biological terrorism, the US is blessed with a massive health care system. The country spends nearly four times as much on its public health and medical system as it does on its entire military. Include the fire-fighting services and police, and it is clear that these civilian institutions (and the Centers for Disease Control) are the ones best positioned to respond to domestic terrorism.
The point here is not to dismiss the possibility of any particular chemical or biological threat, but rather to weigh how much attention each one deserves. Assuming we are not foolish enough to demand 100 percent protection against all attacks, our medical system, federal and local governments, and military should be able to ensure against a lasting, strategic calamity. The key to success, however, will be the same as it was a decade ago in Desert Shield, which is to avoid focusing on the most horrific scenarios at the expense of preparing for the most likely ones.
In general agreement with these views, delegates at a conference on “The New Terrorism” held at the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Washington, D.C., in April 1999 agreed that terrorism causing casualties by the use of chemical or biological agents was unlikely in the near future.
A detailed historical study of known terrorist attacks in the collection Toxic Terror leads the authors to similar conclusions:
Crude delivery methods are likely to remain the most common forms of chemical and biological warfare terrorism. They are potentially capable of inflicting at most tens to hundreds of fatalities—within the destructive range of high-explosive bombs, but not the mass deaths predicted by the most alarmist scenarios. Although the devastating potential of a “catastrophic” event of chemical and biological warfare use warrants examination, history suggests that the most probable terrorist use of chemical and biological warfare agents will be tactical and relatively small-scale.
To date, there are no known cases of state-sponsored chemical and biological warfare terrorism (at least in the public domain), probably because of the likelihood of severe retaliation against the sponsoring government if its involvement were to become known.10
In view of the kinds of irrational behavior described in Biohazard and the ease of acquiring and propagating bacteria and viruses for biological weapons, there is no reason for complacency about their dangers. But the dangers should be seen in the perspective of other threats to human life. In 1995, the last year for which official statistics are available, the number of people killed by tobacco in the United States was 502,000, of whom 214,000 were aged between thirty-five and sixty-nine. On average, each of those could have expected to live twenty-three years longer.11 In view of these alarming numbers, it seems to me that the still-prospering tobacco industry poses a proven threat to health and life that is many thousand times greater than the potential threat of bioterrorism.
April 13, 2000
Figures kindly supplied by Mr. John Odling-Smee at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. ↩
Geneva, 1970, p. 76. ↩
Matthew Meselson pointed out to me that their fermentors could not have produced more than ninety pounds of dried anthrax spores a day. He suggests that Alibek’s two tons refer to the suspension of spores in water before drying. ↩
University of California Press, 1999. ↩
George N. Lewis, Theodore A. Postol, and John Pike, “Why National Missile Defense Won’t Work,” Scientific American, August 1999, pp. 36-41. ↩
Philip H. Abelson, “Biological Warfare,” Science, Vol. 286 (November 26, 1999), p. 1677. ↩
Paul Schulte, “Chemical and Biological Weapons: Issues and Alternatives,” Comparative Strategy, Vol. 18, No. 4 (October-December 1999), pp. 329-334. ↩
Matthew Meselson, “The Problem of Biological Weapons,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 52, No. 5 (1999), p. 57. ↩
A micron is a thousandth of a millimeter, or a twenty-five thousandth of an inch. ↩
Jonathan B. Tucker, editor, Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (MIT Press, forthcoming, May 2000), p. 253. ↩
See Richard Peto, Alan D. Lopez, Jillian Boreham, Michael Thun, and Clark Health Jr., Mortality from Smoking in Developed Countries, 1950-2000: Indirect Estimates from Vital Statistics (Oxford University Press, 1994). ↩